Julian Zapata Espinoza, aka “Piolin,” 32, pleaded guilty May 23 to the murder of U.S. ICE Special Agent Jaime Zapata and the attempted murder of ICE Special Agent Victor Avila in Mexico. The court also unsealed the guilty pleas of three other defendants on related murder, attempted murder, racketeering and accessory charges, according to a statement from U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr.

According to court filings, on Feb. 15, 2011, Espinoza, a commander in Los Zetas Cartel, a heavily armed Mexican narco-trafficking cartel and trans-national criminal organization, attempted to hijack Special Agent Zapata’s and Special Agent Avila’s armored government vehicle as the agents were driving on Highway 57 in San Luis Potosi. Two armed Zetas hit squads, or “estacas,” forced the agents off the road and surrounded their vehicle. Espinoza, the leader of the attack, ordered the agents to exit their vehicle. When the agents refused and attempted to identify themselves as American diplomats from the U.S. Embassy, the hit squad members fired weapons into the vehicle, striking both agents. Estaca members continued to fire as the agents attempted to escape by driving away. Zapata died and Avila was seriously injured in the attack.

On April 19, 2011, Espinoza was indicted by a federal grand jury and on Dec. 20, 2011, was extradited from Mexico to the U.S. On May 23, he entered a guilty plea to the murder of Zapata, and the attempted murder of Avila.

In addition, Ruben Dario Venegas Rivera, aka “Catracho,” 25, and Jose Ismael Nava Villagran, aka “Cacho,” 30, pled guilty to federal charges in connection with the slayings. Francisco Carbajal Flores, aka “Dalmata,” 38, pled guilty to conspiracy to conduct the affairs of an enterprise through a pattern of racketeering activity and to being an accessory after the fact to the murder and attempted murder of the ICE agents.

As part of their guilty pleas, Espinoza, Rivera and Villagran admitted to being members of a Los Zetas hit squad and to participating directly in the ambush on Feb. 15, 2011. Flores, acknowledged assisting Zetas members after the attack.
All four defendants face a maximum sentence of life in prison. No sentencing date has been set, according to the statement.

“The deadly ambush of two highly dedicated and courageous American law enforcement officers by the Los Zetas drug cartel demanded an intense, dedicated and forceful response,” said Machen. “The message to any criminal who dares to commit an act of violence against a U.S. law enforcement officer serving in a foreign land is unmistakable—if you commit such a heinous crime, we will not forget, we will not falter, and we will not rest until you are brought to justice. Our work in this critical case will continue until all of those who participated…are held accountable.”